Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  As the London Blitz begins, 13-year-old Ken Sparks is sent on the SS City of Benares as part of a group of 90 children evacuating to Canada.  He is glad to go, both to get away from the bombing and because he feels unwanted by his stepmother.  The ship is luxurious, and when the crew assures them they’ve passed the danger zone for torpedoes, the kids relax and enjoy themselves.  During the first night of “safety”, there’s an explosion, and all passengers are hurried to the lifeboats. The Benares has been hit by the Germans and is sinking fast.  Ken is assigned to Lifeboat 8, but forgets his coat, and after running back to get it, ends up on Lifeboat 12.  When the sun rises, they are alone at sea: six boys, one of their chaperones (the only woman), a Catholic priest, and a few dozen crewmen.  They drift for many days, enduring hunger, thirst, trench foot, and the unknown of whether they will live or die. There are many examples of heroism, and Ken plays a part in their rescue with his knowledge of different aircraft.  There’s a happy ending for Lifeboat 12, although many others were not so lucky, including all those assigned to Lifeboat 8. Ken gets a huge welcome home, assuring him that he is loved and cherished by his father, stepmother, and 3-year-old sister.  Includes many pages of additional information, resources, and photographs, including a reassuringly healthy one of Ken Sparks in 2015 at age 88. 336 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  This extensively-researched novel in verse will attract all kinds of readers with its edge-of-your-seat suspense and historical detail.  Fans of the I Survived series will enjoy this real-life World War II adventure featuring kids much like themselves.

Cons:  It was not particularly relaxing reading all the details of the many days at sea.  I do hope I never suffer from trench foot.

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Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransom

Published by Holiday House

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Summary:  There’s nothing good about Chicago, as far as Langston is concerned.  It’s 1946, and after the death of his mother, his father has decided to move north, happy to get a job in a paper factory and leave behind his sharecropping days in Alabama.  But Langston is picked on at school for being “country” and misses his mother and old home terribly.  Trying to avoid a bully one day, Langston gets lost and finds himself at the George Cleveland Hall Library.  His experience of libraries is that they’re for white folks only, so he’s surprised to learn that not only are other black people going inside, but that the library celebrates African-American culture. Quite by accident, he finds a book by his namesake, Langston Hughes, and discovers a writer who expresses much of his own longing for home.  Gradually, the younger Langston learns how he got his name and that his mother was connected to poetry and Langston Hughes as well. The library changes everything, and by the end of the story, young Langston and his father are beginning to create a new life for themselves in Chicago. Includes an author’s note with more information about the Chicago Black Renaissance and the Hall Library.  112 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This brief gem would make a perfect introduction to historical fiction.  Each character has been created with sympathy and insight, and the reader will learn about post-World War II Chicago along with Langston.  There’s also enough of Langston Hughes’s poetry included to make this a good jumping-off place for further exploration.

Cons:  A little more back matter about Hughes and the full text of some of the poems quoted in the story would have been a nice addition.

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With My Hands: Poems About Making Things by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, pictures by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  These 25 poems celebrate the act of creation, starting with one entitled “Maker” and ending with “With My Hands”.  In between are poems about knitting, tie dying, soap carving, and a host of other projects. There are a few concrete poems (“Knitting” and “Glitter”); a few don’t rhyme, but most so.  Each poem is accompanied by a colorful collage illustration of kids and the creation described in the poem. 32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A fun collection that will inspire young makers.  All the projects are low-tech and most could be done in some version by preschoolers.

Cons:  Another dimension could have been added to the book by including project instructions to go with the poems.

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy by Tony Medina & 13 Artists

Published by Penny Candy Books

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Summary:  Tony Medina has written thirteen poems in tanka form (5-7-5-7-7), inspired by photos of the Washington D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia.  The poems capture emotions from despair (“Payday don’t pay much/Every breath I take is taxed/The kind of life where/I’ll have to take out a loan/To pay back them other loans”) to hope (“I went to this school/When I was a shawty rock/Breakin’ in the yard/Wanted to be a rap star–/But a teacher’s not too far!” with an illustration of a young man in dreadlocks teaching science to an enthusiastic group of students).  The opening two pages are a free verse meditation on black boys ending with “We celebrate their preciousness and creativity/We cherish their lives”. Includes profiles of the thirteen artists who provided the illustrations and an author’s note about the title of the book, the tanka form of poetry, and the Anacostia neighborhood. 40 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  A celebration of African-American boys in deceptively simple poetry, with a wide variety of beautiful, intriguing artwork.  Kids who have mastered the haiku may be inspired to attempt the more complex tanka.

Cons:  Although I liked the compact size of the book, the artwork seemed to warrant a larger, picture book sized format.

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Every Month Is a New Year by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

Published by Lee & Low Books

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Summary:  Designed like a calendar, opening at the bottom instead of the right side, this book explores how a new year is celebrated in cultures around the world.  Eighteen poems celebrate the new year, beginning with “Midnight Ball Drop” on December 31 in New York City, and wrapping up with “Las Doce Uvas de la Suerte” in Spain the following December 31.  In between, there are visits to Scotland, Russia, China, Iran, Thailand, Jordan, Chile, New Zealand, India, and Ecuador, and celebrations that take place in every month of the year. Includes several pages with additional information about each holiday; a glossary and pronunciation guide; and author’s sources.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A wealth of information about a wide variety of cultures, all in a clever package–a book designed like a calendar.  The collage illustrations add texture and plenty of color to the poems.

Cons:  I would have preferred the information about each holiday to be on the page with the poem rather than all in the back.  The poems made me curious to learn more, and it was a little unwieldy to have to keep flipping back and forth.

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The Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection edited by Colby Sharp

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Colby Sharp, co-founder of The Nerdy Book Club, embarked on a creativity project with 44 children’s book authors and illustrators, who were each invited to create two prompts.  Mr. Sharp then sent them two prompts from other artists and asked them to create something based on one of them.  This book is the result: a collection of poems, stories, artwork, and comics. Each one shows the prompt that was given (and who made it up), followed by the creative work it inspired.  The names will be familiar to any fan of children’s literature: Lemony Snicket, Jennifer Holm, Dan Santat, Victoria Jamieson, and many, many more. The final section, entitled “Prompts for You” includes intriguing text and pictures to inspire readers.  Includes brief biographies of all the contributors and an index. 288 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This unusual book is fun to read (especially for us nerdy children’s book fans) and an inspiring look at the creative process.  There were some fun surprises (a deliciously creepy tale by Dav Pilkey comes to mind) and enough different genres to keep things interesting.  The prompts at the end will make you want to cast everything else in your life aside and start writing.

Cons:  It takes some persistence to plow through the whole book, and a few of the entries seemed like the writers kind of phoned it in.

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Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith

Published by Kids Can Press

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Summary:  Jett makes it clear from the beginning of this novel in verse that he’s had a “rotten bad year”.  After his father was imprisoned for killing a family while driving drunk, Jett’s life began to spiral downward.  He became friends with the class bully, and eventually learned that his friend has his own sad reasons for his bad behavior.  Jett’s spending the summer with his grandmother, who loves him unconditionally and uses her tough love to help him come to terms with some of the bad choices he’s made.  He and Grandma tell each other stories from their lives that help Jett to see he’s not the only one who’s made mistakes. Set on the northeast coast of Canada, Jett allows the beautiful beaches and sea help him to heal and move forward into what he hopes will be a better year for him.  232 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A beautiful collection of poems about learning to forgive and let go of the past.  Despite Jett’s troubled past, he is a likeable narrator, and his story moves back and forth in time, allowing the reader to get to know him while slowly learning of his difficult year.

Cons:  Although the ending is ultimately hopeful, there’s a lot of sadness in the story.

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